There are very few people that happily anticipate a trip to the dentist. However, severe anxiety over a dental visit affects millions of Americans and actually prevents them from seeking proper dental care. The consequences of this problem are even more serious than lost teeth or dental pain. Failure to regularly attend the dentist can cause gum disease. Gum disease affects the gums and mouth, but additionally it can lead to more serious diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Skipping that dental visit can mean a whole lot more than poor dental hygiene!
Luckily, many dentists are specially skilled in working with fearful patients. There are a variety of treatments and methods out there to help to alleviate fear and pain during a visit to the dentist.
Fear: Where Does it Stem From?
Roughly between 5% and 8% of Americans skip the dentist due to fear. A much higher number, about 20%, only visit the dentist when absolutely necessary. This fear comes more so from a loss of control while in the dentist’s chair, rather than the pain that may come from a visit. Think about it, you are lying vulnerable in a chair with a dentist standing above you while you are in a situation where you are barely able to speak or respond. For many, this creates a lot of anxiety because they feel like they are not in control.
Furthermore, there are many dentists out there that treat all of their patients the same, in particular, in the area of one’s pain threshold. It shouldn’t be expected that each person is going to handle pain in the same way. A dentist can make or break an experience and they need to take the time to be sure a patient is comfortable, and be able to make adjustments throughout a procedure if the patients’ pain increases. Otherwise, they are just adding to the slue of phobics out there.
And on the other hand, patients need to be more clear about their needs and express how they are feeling to a dentist. Many times, it may be that the dentist is unaware of the pain or anxiety they are causing.
Overcoming Fear of Dentists
Many dentists who specialize in treating patients with fear really make an effort to create a welcoming environment. These dentists tend to have the most welcoming office décor. From the moment you walk through the door you feel at ease by the color scheme and inviting staff. Beyond that, the best dentists will use the following basic methods to help enhance the feeling of control for a patient.
- They take time and care in explaining the feelings a patient should have and for how long that feeling will last
- They continually communicate with the patient and ask if it is okay to go on
- They give the patient permission to stop the procedure at any time they wish. It is helpful to have a non-verbal cue, such as the raising of a hand
- They allow time for requested breaks
Unfortunately, many dentists do not have the patience to treat fearful patients with the care that they deserve. Some will advertise that they specialize in dealing with the fearful, but still they come up lacking. It is best, if you are looking for a new dentist, to be up front about your fears at the first moment of contact. You have the right to ask to speak to the dentist about your fears before ever setting foot in the office. In the event that the receptionist tries to derail a conversation between you and the dentist or you do not receive a returned phone call, it is best to try the next dentist. That isn’t the right choice for you!
More than likely, visiting the dentist won’t be nearly as bad as you imagine it in your mind. As humans, we tend to make matters worse when we have a fear or anxiety. Surveys of patients that have undergone dental procedures such as root canals often find that they anticipated much more pain than they experienced.
Here are a few tips that may help you to control your fears and anxieties:
- On the first visit, take someone that you trust along for support. This will help you to build confidence about sitting in the chair. Just be sure to choose someone who doesn’t share your anxiety!
- Comfort yourself by using a distraction while in the chair, whether it be your own iPod that you bring in or you could always select a dentist that has televisions you can watch.
- Relaxation techniques work great! Controlled breathing, such as taking a deep breath, holding it, and then releasing it. This process slows your heartbeat and relaxes your muscles. Also, you could try progressive muscle relaxation, which requires you to tense and relax different muscle groups in turn.
- Speak to your dentist about which sedatives are appropriate for you. There are several options including nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”), oral sedatives, and intravenous sedation. Not all dentists offer these options, so this would be a great question to ask in that initial phone call.
If you are beyond even considering going to the dentist, you may want to seek a psychologist. Overcoming your fear may a bit more complex and require professional help.